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Indigenous groups urge Victorian government to keep new bail laws as police claim they hamper domestic violence prevention

Dechlan Brennan -

Indigenous leaders have urged the Victorian government to not rescind their new bail laws, after it was reported members of the Victorian Police had expressed frustration internally in managing domestic violence offenders. 

The reports, first published in The Age on Wednesday, said members of the Victorian Police had used the horrific deaths of several women in the state, as well as a groundswell of sentiment against domestic violence nationally, to criticise the laws brought out in March, which removed the breaching of bail as a criminal offence.

The bail laws were initially remodelled in 2018 after the Bourke Street massacre to make the threshold for bail much higher.

However, the changes were found to have disproportionately affected children and young people, women, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people, and people living with a disability.

They were changed after a significant effort by Indigenous and legal groups in Victoria, and after the coroner investigating the death of Indigenous woman Veronica Nelson found they were an “unmitigated disaster.”

Chief executive of Aboriginal family violence prevention service Djirra, Antoinette Braybrook, told National Indigenous Times: “Changes to Victorian bail laws in 2018 caused mass incarceration of Aboriginal people, with Aboriginal women vastly and disproportionately affected."

“In our work, we continue to see Aboriginal women misidentified as the perpetrators of violence, criminalised, and their children taken,” the Kuku Yalanji woman said. 

“Aboriginal women must not be blamed and punished for the violence they are experiencing.”

Those who administer bail are still required to consider a myriad of outcomes, including the risk of family violence and the views of victim-survivors. Police are also able to bring family violence offenders who breach bail conditions before a magistrate, who can consider the revoking of bail. 

Any break of an intervention order also remains a criminal offence.

However, The Age reported police officers felt they were unable to act, with one stating in an internal message board in response to Family Violence Assistant Commissioner Lauren Callaway: “In a time when women are being killed by their current or ex-partner at an alarming rate, how can lawmakers or those in positions of power change legislation and think this is in any way acceptable[?]”

In response, Ms Braybrook said: “Expanding police powers and changing laws is not a solution to keeping Aboriginal women safe and with their children.

"Investing in frontline, specialist Aboriginal-led family violence services is the solution.”

Victorian Aboriginal Legal Service chief executive Nerita Waight, who has been highly critical of a number of delays and U-turns by the government - especially concerning youth bail, said Aboriginal women fared the worst under the previous laws. 

“Last time the Victorian government toughened its bail laws, they were labelled a disaster,” she told The Age.

“The Victorian government should focus on considered measures that do not result in locking our people up unnecessarily.”

It was reported that Attorney-General Jaclyn Symes, whose government has routinely said the laws were some of the strictest in the country when it comes to serious offenders, had no plans to review the laws. 

Furthermore, Premier Jacinta Allan warned other states about changes on Wednesday, telling reporters: “Justice reforms are complex and in making change with the best of intentions, the right intentions, you have to examine carefully the consequences of those changes and that is why last year, with the bipartisan support in the parliament, we passed bail reforms to address some of those issues from the 2018 bail changes.”

Ms Braybrook, who said on Monday that organisations like hers "are the lowest funded of the four legal assistance providers in the country,” has urged the government to address the chronic underfunding of Djirra and other specialist Aboriginal Family Violence Prevention and Legal Services (FVPLSs). 

She said this is so “Aboriginal women and children have access to holistic, culturally safe legal and non-legal support no matter where they live.”

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